Unions today are enjoying a surge of support across generations, particularly among Generation Z, and policymakers have a lot to learn about this pro-union generation. Typically defined as adults born in 1997 or later, Gen Z distinguishes itself from previous generations in a number of ways, most prominently in their attitudes toward the workplace, including a higher approval of unions than even older generations had at their age. Entering the labor force in a time of economic uncertainty, Gen Zers not only report high rates of economic anxiety but also have demonstrably more progressive attitudes than older generations. This has translated to on-the-ground organizing successes as Gen Zers lead union campaigns at their workplaces, which in turn has enabled young workers to reap the economic benefits of union membership.
This column can help policymakers understand both Gen Z’s strong support for unions as well as evidence of the benefits Gen Z workers enjoy from forming unions.
Gen Z is America’s most pro-union generation
Previous research from the Center for American Progress has shown not only that Gen Z is the most pro-union generation alive today, but also that both Gen Zers and Millennials are more pro-union than older generations were at their age. Figure 1 illustrates how attitudes toward unions have evolved since 1972; the data show that support for unions has grown in every generation in recent years, but Millennials have consistently been more pro-union than Gen Xers or Baby Boomers since they began entering the labor force in 2000, and Gen Zers are more pro-union still since they first entered the workforce in 2016. In 2020, according to the author’s analysis of data from an American National Election Studies survey, Gen Zers are the most supportive of unions, with a mean approval rating of 64.3 compared with 60.5 for Millennials, 57.8 for Gen Xers, and 57.2 for Baby Boomers.
Gen Z’s high support for unions is exceptional in that it exhibits narrower traditional education and political divides in union support. Figure 2 breaks down union support by both generation as well as education and political party identification. While self-identified Republicans of all generations describe themselves as less supportive of unions than self-identified Democrats—and college-educated adults are generally less pro-union than the working class, defined as workers without a four-year college degree—Gen Z shows a narrower partisan gap with nearly no working-class gap. These narrowing divides, along with the greater racial and ethnic diversity of younger generations, may contribute to the overall greater pro-union attitudes among Gen Z compared with other generations.
Unions help Gen Zers achieve economic security
While a number of factors may explain Gen Z’s high support for unions, it is clear that unions help all workers, including young workers, achieve economic security by increasing wages, securing better benefits, and guaranteeing greater job stability. Figure 3 shows how from 2016 to 2021, union membership is associated with increased wages for workers ages 18 to 34 by 11.3 percent, with even larger gains for young Black and Hispanic workers.
What is the union wage premium for Millennials and Generation Z?
Increase in wages for workers ages 18–24 due to union membership, 2016–2021
The Center for Economic and Policy Research
Increase in wages for workers ages 25–34 due to union membership, 2016–2021
The Center for Economic and Policy Research
Increase in wages for all young workers due to union membership, 2016–2021
Unions offer a range of economic benefits for their members, especially for members without four-year college degrees. Not only does the direct increase in wages that comes from collective bargaining help individual workers better support themselves—and save more and pay down debt over their lifetimes—but collective bargaining also extends a pay standard to all workers who perform the same job, which narrows racial/ethnic and gender pay gaps. Unions are also able to negotiate better benefits for their members, including health insurance coverage and retirement plan enrollment, and this too extends to Millennials and Generation Z. (see Figure 4) All unionized workers ages 18 to 34 were 37.9 percent more likely than nonunion workers to have health insurance through their employer, and 89.8 percent more likely to have a retirement plan, and these increases were even larger for young Hispanic and Asian workers. Young workers today are highly concerned about their ability to support themselves, especially given high costs of living and risks they will not be adequately supported by Social Security in their retirement; these improvements in benefits are therefore crucial for helping young workers stay afloat and build wealth over their lifetimes.
Gen Zers are leading organizing campaigns nationwide
Workers who want to form a union in the United States today face myriad obstacles. Federal labor law is broken, giving union-busting corporations outsize power to squash organizing campaigns—legally or illegally, since consequences are so minimal that many corporations treat them just as a cost of doing business. Businesses are free to force their employees to attend meetings, called “captive audience meetings,” where they subject workers to threats about possible business closures or firings if workers unionize, and organizers are powerless to stop them. While firing organizers is illegal, many corporations do it anyway, since the worst penalty under federal law is offering that worker their job back plus back pay: Data from 2016 and 2017 show that employers were charged with illegally firing workers in nearly one-fifth of union elections.
Some of the country’s largest corporations have been accused of leading vigorous anti-union campaigns. National Labor Relations Board judges have found that both Starbucks and Amazon violated federal labor law during their union elections. Nevertheless, young workers, and Gen Zers in particular, have spearheaded a wave of successful organizing campaigns at Starbucks, overcoming the odds to form unions at 336 Starbucks workplaces across the country as of August 2023—a campaign that is both emblematic of the state of the labor movement among young workers and famous for making national headlines.
Many of the Gen Z organizers forming unions at Starbucks look to their own personal experiences with unions, or their family’s, as reasons for starting their own. Citing his own experiences with union membership enabling his father to go to school, one 20-year-old Starbucks organizer stated:
Workers are finally realizing that they have this right to organize and that they can demand more from their employers. That’s what we’re doing at Starbucks. We don’t want to be part of the Great Resignation because we like our jobs and we want to keep working at Starbucks. But we want to make Starbucks a better place to work for all of us.
A 17-year-old organizer in upstate New York put the support among young people for unions in generational terms:
I feel like the baby boomers started at the start line, and now we’re farther and farther behind. Gen X are a mile behind, millennials are two miles, and my generation is now like five miles behind. We’re just sick of them saying we have equal opportunities; we have to make up those five miles.
This campaign is notable not only for taking place at one of America’s largest corporations, which has racked up headlines for its alleged efforts to oppose unionization, but also for organizing workers in the service sector. While some sectors, including construction and the public sector, have managed to preserve rates of union membership above the national average, workers in the growing service sector have faced renewed obstacles to organizing. Many service-sector jobs also offer particularly low pay and few benefits, such as retail and home care, and these jobs are often held by working-class people, women, and workers of color, meaning unions organized in the service sector have the potential to bring greater equity and financial security to working families.
Young workers are also leading union efforts in new industries. In 2022, the largest union elections, by represented workers, were nearly all graduate student unions, who made headlines for their large-scale strikes at universities nationwide. Leading labor unions have made efforts to support these campaigns and nurture a culture of organizing among young workers by training and uplifting the work of young organizers.
Young people face an uphill battle when forming a union, as labor law heavily stacks the deck in favor of anti-union corporations. This makes Gen Z’s union victories all the more remarkable.
Nevertheless, to sustain a lasting revival of union membership in the United States over the coming years as today’s young workers make up an increasing share of the workforce, it is imperative for lawmakers to pass measures that would help these workers exercise their right to come together in collective bargaining. Congress has a number of measures that it could pass to help workers of all generations form unions without corporate interference, such as the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which would strengthen workers’ legal organizing protections. Young workers need policymakers who champion their right to speak up on the job.